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Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

In the early church, followers of Rabbi Christ the lawbreaker were known not as Christians--originally a term of derision first used in 70 A.D.--but as rebels who practiced nonviolence and the compassionate communism of sharing wealth according to need. Imprisonment was often the price for trying to recruit others to the creed. A major testimony of faith was one's jail record.

These days, Christians are still being arrested or jailed, but for different reasons: preachers for money fraud, anti-abortionists for killing doctors, and a Catholic bishop in Minnesota for drunk driving.

For a reminder that the standards of the early church have not entirely vanished, Murray Polner and Jim O'Grady offer Daniel and Philip Berrigan. The authors are seasoned journalists who interviewed broadly for the book, are sensitive to spiritual nuances usually lost on the secular media, and who artfully tell the stories of two of this century's most ardent keepers of the faith and sharers of the peace.

Daniel, now 75, and Philip, 73, are described as leaders of the "Catholic Resistance," a band of dissenters from conventional state and church pieties. They continue "to act with a disciplined nonviolence--even though they are bound to exchange a sizable chunk of their freedom for deeds leaving little discernible trace on the institutions they would subvert"

Of the two, Daniel is better known: a poet and playwright; a writer of rich, metaphorical prose; a teacher taking stints in classrooms from Colorado College to Loyola University in New Orleans; and a priest, steadfast in the spiritual service he began as an 18-year-old seminarian in 1939. The future resister of Caesar's wars heartily embraced the cassocked military regime of Rome's chosen, the Jesuits. Ordained in 1952 by Richard Cardinal Cushing, the new Father Berrigan found himself on a brief assignment in Europe, including a military chaplaincy in West Germany. Up through the early '60s, he taught in high school and college, sending students into Catholic working houses of hospitality in hopes of radicalizing them to side with the ideals of nonviolence and with the poor, as he himself one day would.

Philip Berrigan, a former World War II soldier, joined the Josephites in 1950 after graduating from the College of the Holy Cross. As a Josephite priest in an order founded as a "Negro apostolate," Berrigan was sent into black parishes in Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans. He roiled the waters by applying the teachings of the gospels to the lives of the poor he was serving. Like Martin Luther King Jr., he tied together the excesses of the U.S. war machine to the deprivations inflicted on the destitute at home.

Both brothers were directed by superiors in their orders to shut up when tempted to speak out on war and racism. Instead, they spoke louder--and not only with words. The same spirit of defiance led to felony convictions and imprisonment, on charges ranging from raiding draft board files to damaging weaponry.

Was it all futile? The authors think not: "Above all else, conscience and protest did count, and millions of others opposed to the pointless and bloody [Vietnam] war were right. Had there been no demonstrations, no draft board raids, no campus upheavals, no alternative weeklies, no centrist opposition, and yes, no Dan or Phil Berrigan and the Catholic Left, there is no telling when it might have ended, how many more Asians and Americans would have died, and even whether nuclear weapons might have been used"

Polner and O'Grady are thorough but not exhaustive biographers. This is not Taylor Branch on Martin Luther King Jr., nor David Garrow on Lyndon Johnson. The authors offer nothing on the debate over nonviolence vs. violence between Dan Berrigan and Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua. And not much is here on the brothers' work in classrooms, though both were teachers who instructed kids to skip writing obtuse papers on theology and go find God in the lives of poor people.

Still, compensations for these omissions abound. One telling anecdote is related by John Dear, a young Jesuit in the Berrigan mold who was recently imprisoned in North Carolina with Phil Berrigan for damaging a fighter plane. He had been sent to Georgetown University, the Jesuit school that has happily provided professorial roosts to Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Henry Kissinger, and Madeleine Albright--advocates all of violence via U.S. military death-dealing. Dear recalls: "I talked to the Georgetown rector about doing civil disobedience and he said, `I know that Dan Berrigan will be the only Jesuit remembered in U.S. history in the 20th century. He is the epitome of the American Jesuit. But the last thing I need is another Dan Berrigan at Georgetown. Don't do it."'

The authors provide an 18-page bibliography which includes the 31 books by Daniel Berrigan and the eight by Philip. Daniel is currently part of a Jesuit community in Manhattan. Philip, who has spent a total of 15 years in prison for violating unjust laws that sanction killing, lives in Baltimore with his wife. The brothers, conclude Polner and O'Grady, "honored the country and the world in this, the bloodiest century in human history, by their moral balance, in public and private"

COLMAN MCCARTHY is the director of the Center for Teaching Peace, and a volunteer high school teacher.
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Author:McCarthy, Coleman
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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